What A Man Is …

I am a strong and fiercely independent woman. I always have been. When I was 18 years old, in 1990, I left my comfy small town of Groton, Massachusetts, to attend college and live in NYC. I wanted to be a performer, actor, comedian, writer, or anything that got me out of that boring and predictable suburban life. I wanted more. So I went out on my own, leaving behind my wonderful family and all my relatives and friends, hoping to make new friends and a life for myself. And I did. I lived in and around the city for years. First, at college. Then, getting apartments with friends in Brooklyn, Queens, and ultimately, New Jersey, just 10 minutes outside NYC. I was 5 hours away from family, and often lonely and scared.

But I never had a problem doing things for myself and by myself, or not being in relationships for years at a time. I was never one of those girls you see who always has a boyfriend or has to be with someone. Nope. In fact, I was usually not with someone at all. I carried my own groceries up the stairs or across multiple streets, lugged my own heavy suitcases, figured out ways to try and keep myself feeling safe on those days I had to come home late at night on the subway by myself. I did all of that for years. Alone. By the time I met Don, and by the time he finally moved in with me so we could start our life together in 2005, I was exhausted. I was so beyond ready to have a man in the house, or, apartment. I am an independent woman, but there is something to be said for what a man brings, what a man gives, and what a man is – in a relationship. It’s now been 4 years since my dear husband died his sudden death, and once again, I am exhausted. I’m exhausted from being a woman, who no longer has a man. And at the end of the day, there is something to be said about that.

There is something to be said about having male energy around you. That force of strength and testosterone and gruffness, to counter my feminine qualities. I find myself longing for that hug from a man, the way they just hold you and envelop you in their arms, making you feel as if there is nobody else outside of that embrace.

I miss the safeness and the security that comes from a man’s presence. Don was the walking poster boy for “safe.” Everything about him screamed and whispered safe. He was a paramedic. He was an Air Force Vet who fixed the planes and made them safe – a Flight Crew Chief. He was a car mechanic who always made sure our car was safe before I got in it to go to work. He spent his days off volenteering for animal rescue, helping with adoptions and caring for the dogs and cats with such tenderness and love. Before I met him, I had gone through a huge traumatic event in my life, and so as a result, I had unbelievable insomnia and nightmares. Don made me feel safe. When he was lying next to me in our bed, just knowing he was there and looking over and seeing his large, 6 foot 3 frame, made me feel like nothing could ever harm me again. He was my protector, my safe haven, my lighthouse. Hearing him breath in the night gave me a comfort like I had never known.

There is something to be said for a man like my husband, who always held the car door open for me to get in. Who carried the groceries and all the heavy bags and boxes. Who carried the table and products from the car inside the store when I used to do Food Demos part-time. Who acted as my unpaid assistant, doing all the really hard stuff, when I had my own side business as a Wedding Planner. There is something to be said for a man who instinctively throws a blanket over you at night, when he feels like you might be cold. Who gets in the car at 3 am and runs to Target, because your printer ran out of ink, and you have to write up your syllabus for first day of teaching in the morning. He puts oil in the car and always gives it to you with a full tank of gas, and when that red service engine light comes on, you call him and he jumps on a bus from New Jersey into the city, and then a train from the city to Long Island, and then another bus, just to get to you and take care of it. He doesn’t have much money, but he gives you the last of whatever is in his wallet, always. He sends you off with a kiss on your forehead as he hums happily or strums his guitar, creating the background noise of your life together. When you wake up from a nightmare or a flashback about your trauma, he holds you and rocks you back and forth and runs his strong yet soft fingers through your hair, whispering: “It’s okay Boo. You’re safe here. I’m not going to let anything happen to you.”

He waits up for you on the nights when you come home late with the car, and he meets you inside the dark parking garage across the street, and then walks you back safely to the apartment. You could do it alone. You did do it alone for years. All of it. But that’s the point. You no longer have to, because now you have this incredible, wonderful man, and you get to let him take care of you in all those ways that he loves doing.

And when the world gets terrifying and people are getting shot and killing one another for no goddamn reason and you are scared out of your mind at all the violence, and you are feeling all those old trauma triggers coming right back and re-surfacing, he takes you in his arms and he explains that nothing bad will happen to you. He takes the bad scary world and somehow makes it fluffy and beautiful again.

And there is something to be said for the smell of a man. That smell of fresh laundry and linens, mixed with just a hint of aftershave. And the way his hands are like oven mitts and your hands wrap entirely around his so that they become invisible when you are holding hands. And his tallness and large frame make you feel petite for the first time in your overweight life. And he offers you his coat even though you’re never cold. And he stretches out all the way across the couch, his legs lying across it and up and over the sides. And his things and his “stuff” are everywhere, taking over the entire apartment. Gym bags filled with ratty t-shirts and tennis rackets and towels and guitar equipment and speakers and socks and that ugly off-white shirt he wears that you hate, and isn’t every bit of it so glorious? That man, and every cell of him, is there with you. He chose you. He chose you to annoy and to comfort and to frustrate and to love until the end of time, and far beyond.

And now that man is dead, and you look around 4 years later, and all the stuff is gone or boxed up somewhere in a basement, or donated to some pleasant and worthy cause. There is no more man-smell in your life, and you are once again carrying all your own groceries and lifting those heavy suitcases and holy shit, do you resent it. “I already DID all of this by myself for YEARS!!!”, you scream into the nothing. “I found my person and I thought I would never have to do this shit alone, ever again. I found my teammate. I FOUND him. And now he has been taken away. FUCCCCKKKKK!!!!!” You scream this as you are shuffling down the city streets after a long day at work, carrying all the baggage that comes with no longer having that beautiful man in your world. And you go to bed that night, and you try like hell not to feel like you are unsafe, and like bad things are going to happen to you because you are female and vulnerable and terrified. You close your eyes, and you wonder if the nightmares will begin when you fall asleep, or do they start after you wake up again, in this big bad world without your lighthouse in it.

And at the end of the day, there is something to be said about that.

Seeing In Color

Autumn has always been my favorite time of year. I love the fall so much, and it is always much too short and goes away much too fast. But for so many reasons, the fall is just filled with awesomeness and beauty for me. It’s why I chose to get married in October. My birthday is in late September, and then my husband’s birthday follows in November.

I love the colors of the fall. The smell in the air. The crisp breeze around every corner. The way you don’t have to think about what to wear. It’s not ungodly hot anymore and it’s not yet really cold. (Well, to me, nothing is really cold, because I don’t mind the cold at all. ) All the best baseball is in the fall. I love the beginning of things that autumn brings – everything from the start of school again to the holidays, starting with Thanksgiving. I have always been a Christmas freak, so much so that my wedding’s theme was “Christmas in October.” I love the whole season. Every single part of it.

Then my husband died in a micro-second, on a brutally hot day in July 2011. And like Michele Neff Hernandez talked about in her brilliant Key Note Address in San Diego a few weeks ago, my entire world went dark. There was no color. Everything went black. And then fall came. All the beautiful leaves and the orchards of pumpkins and the crisp air and the many, many things that always brought me so much joy – they were black. I would go outside to look at the fall foliage, but all I could see was grey. It wasn’t even a color, really, Every single thing was just bleak and hopeless looking and void of brightness. Colorless.

It took me 3 years, until the 3rd fall cycle to come around, before I saw the color again. Three years. One day I just walked outside, and the color was back. And I felt joy. But it was a new joy. It was a joy that carried inside of it, death and grief and pain. And because this new joy carried those things and so many other things, I was able to feel that joy bigger and more intensely than ever before. It was almost as if I was seeing colored leaves for the first time. Like I was seeing yellow and orange and red for the very first time. And really, I was. Because joy after tremendous pain is a color so bright and so vivid and so poignant, it is hard to describe in words.

On Friday, I went to see a play in the city that an old college friend is directing. The play is set on Thanksgiving Day, and so the stage was set up with lots of autumn colors and flowers/leaves. I turned to my friend, who was sitting beside me, and I kept telling her how happy those leaves were making me, because it meant fall was coming, and just the idea of fall coming made me so happy. She probably thought I was some kind of lunatic, because I must have mentioned the stupid leaves about 3 times in a row. She must have been thinking: “Dude, relax. They aren’t even real leaves. It’s a set on a stage. Calm down.” But my heart was beating out of my chest with excitement. That same excitement I used to get as a kid on Christmas morning, the excitement I still got when I was an adult, the excitement that my husband Don told me multiple times to never lose, because he found it so endearing about me.

But I did lose it for awhile. I had to. Because Don was dead, and I was stuck here, forced to live in the reality of that horror. I had to move through the hurt and the grief first, before I could see Christmas again. Before yellow looked like yellow again. At the time, I was so impatient with myself, and so damn tired of being in pain. My therapist told me: “Christmas and autumn aren’t going anywhere. They will come every single year. Trust me on this. They will be there for you, whenever you can handle them again. Right now, you are exactly where you need to be.”

And now, here I am, today, getting excited about the fall just from looking at a stage that is set during autumn. I never thought that I would love Christmas or fall again, in those early days of grief. I thought that kind of joy was over for me. Honestly. Truly. That is what I thought.

So for those of you who are reading this that are still stuck inside the blackness – know this. One day you will see color. One day you will FEEL all those things that made you feel joy again. The joy will be new and different, and so much more profound than old joy. Please trust me. It is going to take awhile, and for some, longer than others. And you are going to feel like things are hopeless, and like you cannot possibly get through this kind of horrific pain and emptiness. You will feel like a shell of yourself, like everything that you once were, has been replaced with nothingness.

Know this. Wherever you are now, that is where you are supposed to be. You are there because you still need to work through whatever it is that is holding you there. And when you do, you will move to somewhere else. And then there will be more to work through. And you will keep chopping at the grief, until you break that smog open. And slowly, the person that you were will start emerging into a new person. A person changed by loss. A person who is working through and moving with loss. And then one day, on a completely random and ordinary day, you will wake up to a brightness that blinds you with its color. A world filled with reds and yellows and greens and shades of color you have never seen or felt before. A world that you probably could have never imagined. Until, of course, you could.